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“A Special Place in My Heart:” Memories of USAID in Vietnam

Images of the U.S. military in Vietnam are part of the American consciousness. But these images are only part of the story. Often, the lives and sacrifices of USAID workers are overlooked, but they too faced enormous danger, joined with the military to deliver supplies to locals, promoted development in dangerous areas, worked with hamlet chiefs and ordinary civilians, and witnessed the unexpected loss of their friends. Some USAID workers even died. Sidney Chernenkoff’s first overseas assignment with USAID was in Vietnam at the height of the war.  His service is an excellent example of the complexity and value of USAID’s contributions to a war that remains controversial long after it has ended.

Chernenkoff initially joined USAID after spotting an advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle that said the agency was hiring for service in Vietnam. He was interviewed, scored highly on a language aptitude test, and was sent to Hawaii for six months to learn Vietnamese.  He then boarded a plane in March 1967, arriving in Vietnam just as the war was entering its most intense phase. Chernenkoff worked as a part of the CORDS (Civil Operations and Rural Development Support) program in the town of Tuy Phuoc, about 300 miles northeast of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). 

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Geiger Counters, and a Nanny Who Became a Millionaire—Establishing a USAID Mission in Kazakhstan

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, USAID made Central Asia a top priority—“no matter where you were posted and where you were on your current assignment” employees were urged to head there. Jonathan Addleton was working for USAID in post-apartheid South Africa. Central Asia intrigued him, and the organization quickly agreed to send Addleton to help establish the first USAID mission in Kazakhstan, “land of the Great Steppe.” Addleton served as a program officer, with responsibilities across Central Asia. Addleton’s spouse, Fiona, called Almaty “the hardest assignment [they] ever had.”

Their apartment measured just over 200 square feet, and they had to fit their sons Iain and Cameron in as well. Because of concerns regarding nuclear waste in the area, the Addleton family needed geiger counters for their residence—and years later Fiona and an unusual number of their friends developed thyroid cancer. The children’s nanny was eager to work for the family, and to learn English. When Addleton returned twenty years later, the nanny had a beautiful home, drove a Lexus, and owned vacation property on the Turkish coast.

Born and raised in Pakistan as the son of missionaries, Addleton returned to spend much of his professional life in Asia. He was posted to Kazakhstan from 1993–1996 as a Program Officer and served as USAID Mission Director from 2013–2015. He holds a BSc in journalism, history, and Asian Studies from Northwestern University and a PhD in international development from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He served as ambassador to Mongolia 2009–2012.

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Death, Love and Conspiracy: The Nepalese Royal Massacre of 2001

Facing domestic unrest, including a Maoist insurgency, the Nepalese royal family never suspected that the greatest threat to the monarchy lived within the palace walls. On June 1, 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra of Nepal got drunk and high (as he often did). Stumbling into the royal dining hall, the prince gunned down King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya, and eight other members of the royal entourage, including his younger siblings. The prince allegedly then turned the gun on himself in an attempt to commit suicide. He failed to end his own life and plunged into a coma. As heir to the throne, the murderous Crown Prince Dipendra was declared King of Nepal. He reigned for three days in the hospital before being declared brain dead.

The massacre left the Nepalese population deeply traumatized. They “viewed the king as a god. Literally a god,” according to Larry Dinger, the senior American diplomat in Nepal at the time of the massacre. Many Nepalese remain suspicious of the official story, pointing to inconsistencies in the evidence. Supposedly, Crown Prince Dipendra murdered his family so he could be with the woman he loved. While attending school in the UK, he fell for Devyani Rana, a Nepalese woman from an important family. He wanted to marry her, but his mother—the Queen—disallowed it because Devyani’s grandmother was a concubine. The prince was willing to give up his title to marry her, but Devyani said she would only marry him if she became queen. After learning this, Crown Prince Dipendra “put on his camouflage fatigues. . . . He went into [the] Friday evening royal family gathering and shot the place up.” After the collapse of the royal family, various political groups vied for influence in the government. Although it took several years, the Nepalese royal massacre eventually paved the way for the multi-party system that Nepal has today.

Larry Dinger served in Nepal as Deputy Chief of Mission and chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy when the tragedy unfolded at Narayanhity Royal Palace. He would later go on to serve as ambassador to Micronesia, Fiji (and concurrently Tuvalu, Tonga, Nauru, Kiribati), and as Chief of Mission in Burma.

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The Struggle for Equal Rights: LGBTQ Advocacy in the Foreign Service

While working at the U.S. embassy in Seychelles in 1985, David Buss fell in love with a Peace Corps volunteer, David Larson. After their relationship became common knowledge, Buss was investigated by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Allegedly, the State Department was concerned that foreign persons could blackmail Buss because of his sexual orientation. Buss did not buy this. He said that the investigation was a “witch hunt,” meant to intimidate him and to identify other LGBTQ+ State Department personnel. Buss soon learned of dozens of other similar ongoing investigations. He decided to take action.

In 1992, Buss and Larson hosted a now-famous brunch—bringing together federal employees from several different departments—in an effort to establish an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. After a series of meetings, the “Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies” (GLIFAA) was formed. Buss was the first president. The founding members were so worried about the consequences of these meetings that one of the first rules of the organization was that there would be “no outing of or speculation about anyone present at the meeting or not present.” GLIFAA fought hard for concrete non-discrimination policies and for official recognition of their romatic partners. After founding GLIFAA, serving as its president, and nurturing the organization through its formative years, Buss retired from the State Department in 2006. He was finally able to marry Larson four years later.

David Buss was born and grew up in Homewood, Illinois. After high school, he was recruited by the CIA. While visiting his girlfriend in Kinshasa a few years later, Buss was offered a job working for the embassy’s commissary, which he accepted. He went on to serve as a GSO in Port-au-Prince, Dar es Salaam, and Nouakchott. While working as the Chargé d’affaires in Seychelles, Buss met and fell in love with his future husband, David Larson. Buss eventually returned to Washington, where he passed the Foreign Service exam and became an FSO in 1992. He continued to work in embassies across the world, finally ending up at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York. Buss retired in 2006 and moved to Poughkeepsie, New York with Larson, where they live to this day.

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Strong-arming Other Donors: Part of USAID’s Response to Famine in Ethiopia

Described by one reporter as “a biblical famine in the 20th century,” the 1983-1985 Ethiopian famine was a humanitarian crisis that was initially little known to much of the rest of the world.  For six months, General Mengistu Haile Mariam, the leader of the military junta ruling Ethiopia, refused to acknowledge the famine–even as millions of people starved. When USAID Administrator Peter McPherson visited Ethiopia at the height of the famine, he was appalled by the scope of the suffering.  And he resolved to take action.

Back in Washington, McPherson met with President Reagan and showed him photographs of the famine.  In an Oval Office meeting, Reagan agreed to overlook political differences with the Mengistu regime and uttered the famous words, “a hungry child knows no politics.”   U.S. policy changed, and the aid began to flow. The Live Aid concert and expanded press coverage solidified public engagement and support. But McPherson’s engagement with Reagan was also critical.

McPherson returned to Ethiopia and was again outraged, this time by delays in food delivery.  USAID hired its own vehicles to transport food aid from Ethiopian ports to people in need. Other donors relied upon the Mengistu government to transport the food, and refused to publicly hold the government accountable when the vehicles did not show up.  McPherson asked a colleague to surreptitiously photograph other donors’ clearly-marked food assistance lying uncollected at the ports. Armed with photographs of wasted food and visible donor names, McPherson gave local ambassadors a choice: join USAID in issuing a public call to action or be embarrassed before a global public that was finally beginning to pay attention to the crisis.  Days later, a press conference was held and the food began to move.

During his tenure as Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (1981-87), Peter McPherson combined realism and idealism to protect USAID from budget cuts, a loss of relevance, and domination by the State Department. He worked on diverse challenges—from family planning in China to economic policy in Egypt—and was equally adept in political battles as in meeting the challenges of promoting development and providing humanitarian aid around the world.  Read more